Episode 81- Rebar and the Alvord Lake Bridge
There’s something about rebar that fascinates me. If nothing else because there are very few things that invoke a fear of being skewered. My preoccupation with metal reinforcement bars dovetails nicely with a structure in San Francisco I’ve kind of become obsessed with— a tiny bridge on the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park called the Alvord Lake Bridge.
(credit Eddy Joaquim)
Ernest Ransome, the father of modern rebar, constructed the bridge in 1889. Today, it is a dumpy, cracked and neglected structure. The inside is a surreal tunnel of phony stalactites.
(Credit Eddy Joaquim)
(Credit Eddy Joaquim)
But the Alvord Lake Bridge is, quite literally, the bridge to the modern world. It is one the oldest reinforced concrete structures still standing. The twisted iron bars embedded in the bridge served as the model for the all the rebar containing structures that followed. It is the ancestor to an endless number of reinforced concrete buildings, bridges, tunnels, viaducts, and foundations. Ransome’s major innovation in rebar was to twist the square bar so that it bonded to the concrete better.
Concrete has incredible compression strength, but it does not have much tensile strength. So if you want concrete to span any significant distance, you need to embed metal reinforcement.
There are plenty of candidates for the most overlooked, most invisible part of the built world, but reinforced concrete has a good claim to being the most invisible of all. Because if it’s made right, you never see the steel skeleton underneath the all the concrete structures that you work in, drive over, and walk under.
The problem with steel reinforcement is that it rusts. When the steel begins to rust, the bond with the surrounding concrete is broken. The rusted metal also swells and breaks the concrete apart. Because of this, most of the reinforced concrete structures that are constantly exposed to the elements (like our highway system) were only designed to last 50 years. More advanced concrete mixtures and epoxy coated rebar increase the longevity, but without regular maintenance, entropy eventually wins out.
(Credit Eddy Joaquim)
Ernest Ransome left San Francisco soon after he completed the Alvord Lake Bridge. In his book “Reinforced Concrete Buildings” published in 1912, you can detect a tinge of bitterness in Ransome’s text as he describes how his twisted rebar was “laughed down” by the Technical Society in California. He left for the east thinking that his revolution of reinforced concrete would have a better chance out there. He left thinking that no one here would fully appreciate his Alvord Lake Bridge, his bridge to the modern world. And looking at it today, I’m sad to say, he was right.
(Alvord Lake Bridge in 1890)
Thanks to CCA Senior Adjunct Professor of Architecture, William Littman (he of the Forgotten Monument) for first telling me about the Alvord Lake Bridge and showing me around. I spoke with Robert Courland, author of Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Common Man-Made Material (a great book!) and Bob Risser of the Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute (a great person to talk to!).
A very special thanks to Bay Area architect and photographer Eddy Joaquim for shooting the bridge for the show. Eddy and his wife, Maile, are also the hosts of the truly excellent Big Tiny Salon, where I first talked about this story in May 2012.
Check the timed comments on the Soundcloud file for a list of the music used in this episode.
Episode 80- An Architect’s Code
Lawyers have an ethics code. Journalists have an ethics code. Architects do, too. According to Ethical Standard 1.4 of the American Institute of Architects (AIA):
“Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.”
(Rendering of the Pelican Bay SHU. Each “pod” contains six cells, a shower, and an exercise yard. Control rooms monitor the pods, and can open and close cell doors remotely. The control rooms are accessed by an upper deck, which has a metal mesh floor allowing officers to fire a shotgun down into the pod in the event of a security breach. Courtesy of Raphael Sperry.)
Life inside of the SHU at Pelican Bay means 22 to 23 hours a day inside of 7.5 by 12 foot room. It’s not a space that’s designed to keep you comfortable. But it’s not just these architectural features, that concern humanitarian activists and psychiatrists. It’s the amount of time many prisoners spend in that cells, alone, without any meaningful activity. Some psychiatrists, such as Terry Kupers, say there is a whole litany of effects that a SHU can have on a person: massive anxiety, paranoia, depression, concentration and memory problems, and loss of ability to control one’s anger (which can get a prisoner in trouble and lengthen the SHU sentence). In California, SHU inmates are 33 times more likely to commit suicide than other prisoners incarcerated elsewhere in the state. There are even reports of eye damage due to the restriction on distance viewing. Terry Kupers says that a SHU ”destroys people as human beings.”
(Terry Kupers at the Conference on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, November 2012.)
So if it is the ethical code of architects to promote human rights…what is their responsibility to the people who are incarcerated in their buildings?
“Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.”
Episode 79- Symphony of Sirens, Revisited
Sirens, for the ancient Greeks, were mythical creatures who sang out to passing sailors from rocks in the sea. Their music was so beautiful, it was said, that the sailors were powerless against it—they would turn their ships towards these sea nymphs and crash in the impassable reefs around them.
Episode 78- No Armed Bandit
Americans now spend more money on slot machines than movies, baseball, and theme parks combined.
Episode 77- Game Changer
60 shots per game x 2 teams = 120 total shots per game
One game = 48 minutes = 2880 seconds
2880 seconds per game / 120 shots
24 seconds per shot
Episode 76- The Modern Moloch
On the streets of early 20th Century America, nothing moved faster than 10 miles per hour. Responsible parents would tell their children, “Go outside, and play in the streets. All day.”
And then the automobile happened. And then automobiles began killing thousands of children, every year.
(Credit: New York Times, Nov 23, 1924)
Much of the public viewed the car as a death machine. One newspaper cartoon even compared the car to Moloch, the god to whom the Ammonites supposedly sacrificed their children.
Pedestrian deaths were considered public tragedies. Cities held parades and built monuments in memory of children who had been struck and killed by cars. Mothers of children killed in the streets were given a special white star to honor their loss.
The horrors of peace appear to be appalling than the horrors of war. The automobile looms up as a far more destructive piece of mechanism than the machine gun. The reckless motorist deals more death the artilleryman. The man in streets seems less safe than the man in the trench. The greatest single lethal factor is the automobile. It left shambles in its wake as it coursed through 1923.
(From left: poster by Harry de Bauffer, reproduced in “Poster Wins Second Prize,” Milwaukee Journal, September 28, 1920; poster by George Starkey, reproduced in “Winning Safety Poster,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1920.)
Episode 75- Secret Staircases
Wherever there is sufficient demand to move between two points of differing elevation, there are stairs. In some hilly neighborhoods of California—if you know where to look—you’ll find public, outdoor staircases.
(Credit: Alana Goldstein)
The large number of often hidden, public staircases is part of what makes California so great. San Francisco’s tourist-crushing Filbert Steps to Coit Tower are not to be handled lightly. The Monument Way staircase just off the corner of 17th and Clayton leads the intrepid walker to what used to be Sutro’s Triumph of Light and Liberty statute. There’s just something about a secret staircase that beckons you to go out of your way to use it.
Episode 74- Hand Painted Signs
There was a time when every street sign, every billboard, and every window display was painted by hand. This sounds unremarkable until you actually think about what that actually means.
(Sign painter Chancey Curtis in Mankato, MN, ca. 1930. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
Every single sign in existence was made by a sign artist with a paint kit and an arsenal of squirrel- or camel-hair brushes. Some lived an itinerant lifestyle, traveling from town to town, knocking on the doors of local shops, asking if they could paint their signs.
Hand painted signs began to disappear. But not completely.
(Credit: New Bohemia Signs)
Our contributor Benjamen Walker spoke with Faythe Levine and Sam Macon about their new book and documentary project, Sign Painters, which profiles more than two dozen contemporary sign painters keeping the tradition alive.
(Ken Davis and Caitlyn Galloway of New Bohemia Signs. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
(A collection of work from New Bohemia Signs. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
Benjamen also spoke with sign painter and cartoonist Justin Green, who draws the comic series Sign Game (among others).
(Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
Sam Greenspan also visited New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco to get their take on the sign painting scene. Damon Styer, the store’s owner, was working on a “rickshaw obscura” for the San Francisco Exploratorium.
Sign Painters (the film) premiers in Washington, D.C. on March 30.
Episode 73- The Zanzibar and Other Building Poems
There comes a time in the life of a modern city where it begins to grow up—literally. Santiago, the capital of Chile, has been going through a tremendous growth spurt since its economic boom of the mid 1990s. It happened fast. In just a few years, single family homes all over the city gave way to high rises.
(Credit: Miguel Angel)
(Credit: Grego Lepoolpe)
(Credit: Carla McKay)
Daniel is also the author of the award-winning novel Lost City Radio. His next book, At Night We Walk in Circles, will be out in the fall.
Episode 72- New Old Town
Like many cities in Central Europe, Warsaw is made up largely of grey, ugly, communist block-style architecture. Except for one part: The Old Town.
(Credit: Andy Wright)
Walking through the historic district, it’s just like any other quaint European city. There are tourist shops, horse-drawn carriage rides, church spires. The buildings are beautiful—but they are not original.
During World War II, German forces razed more than 80% of Warsaw. After Soviet troops took over, much of the city was rebuilt in the with communist style: fast, cheap, and big. They built apartment blocks, wide avenues, and heavy grey buildings. It was communist ideology in architectural form.
But when it came to the historic district of Warsaw—the Old Town and a long connecting section called the Royal Route—they decided not just to rebuilt, but to restore. Builders would use the same stones, and use special kilns to make special bricks to preserve its authenticity. After six years of reconstruction, the new Old Town was opened. Poles were ecstatic to have it back. Even in the West, it was seen as a triumph of the human spirit.
But here’s the thing: Warsaw’s historic Old Town is not a replica of the original. It’s a re-imagining. An historic city that never really was.
(From left: Warsaw’s Old Town Square in 1913; in 1945; and in 2009)
Not long after the Old Town was rebuilt, people started to notice that it was a little bit off. People wandered around and feeling this uncanny disjuncture between the city that they remembered and the city in which they now found themselves.
(From left: Nowy Swiat (“New World”) Street, c. 1915-1918; in 2009)
Despite the push for authenticity, it turned out that the major inspiration for the rebuilding of the city were the paintings of an 18th Century Italian artist named Bernardo Bellotto. Bellotto was a “vedutista,” one who specialized in the Venetian style of painting in which cityscapes are depicted realistically, with their details and documented precisely.
(“Dluga Street,” Bernardo Bellotto, 1778.)
But Bellotto had a tendency to make “improvements” on the cities he painted, relying as much on his artistic license as what he actually observed. The paintings from the 18th Century were never meant to match reality—they were supposed to be better than reality.
(From left: John’s House on Castle Square in the 1920s; John’s House as depicted by Bellotto, c. 1768; John’s House After the 1948 reconstruction.)
For the Soviets, this reconfiguration of the Old Town served two purposes. FIrst, they wanted to send the message that the Old Town—and Warsaw as a whole—would be better than it was before the war. Second, they didn’t want Poles to long for this lost part of the city. By recreating Old Town, the past could stop being such a distraction, and they could get to work on a drastic overhaul of the country.
(Credit: Emily Heath)
Today, placards with Bellotto’s paintings stand beside buildings, inviting passers-by to marvel at their likeness.
This week’s episode is sponsored in part by Sidewalk Radio with Gene Kansas, which covers the art, architecture, design and urban planning of Atlanta, GA and beyond.